Zero Dark Thirty

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.


Douglas Sirk Box Set

February 14, 2011

Whilst the idea behind Valentine’s Day might be to me quite perplexing, the idea behind giving someone a gift loaded with sentiment and love is not. With that in mind, there are few things of such ilk that you can readily fit into a 21.5 by 15.5 by 5 box. Yet, somehow, the good people at Madman have managed it. At a combined 869 minutes of melodramatic bliss, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set is an object of just those dimensions and, whether you’re interested in buying a gift for your Valentine, yourself or anyone with even an ounce of good taste, then might I suggest that you buy this. Aside from making your heart swell and your lips curl themselves into an incredibly frequent wry smile, the only side effect will be your calling everyone “Darling” for a week or two in the interim which, in all honestly, is such a warm and endearing term that it ought only to work in one’s favour.

Of course, as is often the case with a director box set, there are one or two films that seem to be at slight tonal odds with the rest of the collection. However, for anyone who cares to take even a moment to reflect, these anomalies are only really bound by the confines of genre and narrative; their thematics and auteuristic world view more than consistent with their company. To this end, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set offers a gentle critique of American aspirations; all the way from early settlement to the at the time modern-day model of white, heteronormative, familial life. It suggests, rather boldly for its time, that defining one’s own aspirations against and attempting to achieve them within such relational societal constructs is anything but simple, anything but stark, and, never – even when the picture itself might be – black and white.

No Room for the Groom (1952)

A classic example of screw-ball comedy, No Room for the Groom sees Alvah Morrell (Tony Curtis) try desperately to consummate his too much trouble marriage to Lee Kingshead (Piper Laurie). A quality comedy that is short and to the point, No Room for the Groom plays with gender stereotypes and the pressures of marrying into a family when all you want is to be in love. Humourously acknowledging and explaining its own causal paradigm, “It’s called cause and effect”, and displaying just enough cynicism to rouse a giggle out of its audience, “marriage is keeping your mouth shut”, Sirk skillfully shows both parties in a marriage to be annoyingly and endearingly constricted by social pressure, “Should a girl have to tell a man when she wants to be kissed?” A fantasticly light-hearted start to an epic journey of melodramatic discovery.

All  I Desire (1953)

This is as close to perfect as film gets for lovers of romance. Barbara Stanwyck is simply sensational as Naomi Murdock, a woman who has left her family to fruitlessly pursue her personal dreams and to escape the scandal of an affair in a small town. One of many of Sirk’s films to show how deeply an individual can wrestle with their own complex emotions and conflicting desires, All I Desire a beautiful story that allows things to somehow work themselves out. It is also surprisingly progressive for its time, exploring the subjectivity rather than the guilt of a woman whose choices may not have always been entirely moral or selfless.

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) is model woman, wife, (step)mother, friend and professional. In fact, even when life is cruel to her, she remains poised, gracious and strong. Losing her eyesight she is lured into a love affair that she actively refused when she could see. Her ultimate lesson, and the lesson that her suitor Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) learns too, is that true enlightenment in such a dark world can only come from shutting off your expectations of others. When you are willing, even blindly so, to let others in and to behave towards them truly selflessly, only then will you find in yourself profound peace and happiness. A moving, heartwarming tale.

Taza, Son of Cochise (1954)

Although Taza, Son of Cochise is a generic diversion for Sirk (predominantly it is a western), it doesn’t fail to reiterate his concerns for familial obligation and the complexities of love. Taking things a psychoanalytic step further, Sirk explores ideas of totem and taboo within a tribal context as they pertain to the increasingly obtrusive All-American way of life. Stars Rock Hudson as Taza and Barbara Rush as Oona.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Probably Sirk’s most famous melodrama and the primary inspiration for Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), All That Heaven Allows is a remarkable film that uses colour and lighting to exemplarily create mood, silhouettes and shadows to express subtle subtext and overt reference to psychoanalysis (namely Freudian) to explain character motivation and action/inaction. Heavily critical of American upper class social decorum and the sort of repression such false exclusivity necessarily harbours, All That Heaven Allows is a stunning, deeply affecting and astute cinematic work.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

The mesmerizing Barbara Stanwyck returns in There’s Always Tomorrow as the spirited Norma Miller Vale  who has chosen career over family. Still in love with Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) who is under appreciated and somewhat unfulfilled, the two attempt to bring their disparate lives together but soon learn that the confines of morality and the boundaries of their emotions can never allow for such a union. Easily the most heartbreaking film in the box, There’s Always Tomorrow leaves a stunning air of desperation, hope, inevitable resolve and disappointment in its wake: “Darling, if life were always an adventure it’d be exhausting.”

A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

The second generically anomalous work in the set, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is still a melodrama, but is set against the very real backdrop of post World War II Germany. Wistfully explicating how the past absolutely permeates the present, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is as much about ethical behaviour as it is morality; always suggesting that the two are in no way necessarily linked: “Murderers are never murderers twenty-four hours a day.” Ultimately, Sirk seems to posit that love and death – natural drives and inevitable occurrences in human life – present themselves in relation always to anOther.

The Tarnished Angels (1958)

Exploring both the limits of friendship and the product of loyalty, The Tarnished Angels examines the types of social contracts individuals enter into and what happens to those contracts at the hands of the passage of time. Suggesting love is built upon so much more than just emotion and desire, The Tarnished Angels is another fine example of Sirk’s ability to produce performances of great depth and dimensionality. Stars Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Jack Carson and Dorothy Malone.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Well, if the eight fantastic films that came before it didn’t win you over (who are you and how is your heart colder than mine?) then Imitation of Life most certainly will. A story loaded with issue and inference at every turn, Imitation of Life reveals a plethora of absurdities that constitute “life” through performativity. From the overt (literally acting) to the ideological (gender, family, class, race), Imitation of Life breaks down many of the ways in which life is constructed and the “roles” each individual assumes; sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes born of personal desire. Constructing life through the dot points that are “the great events of life” such as marriage and death, Sirk shows how we “measure” abstract notions such as “achievement”, “happiness”, “fulfillment” and “success”.

Though there is infinitely more to be said about Sirk and each of these films, the very best way to discover such sound, intelligent and genuinely marvelous films is to open up your own very beautiful box set and let the melodramatic bliss wash over you like so many emotions and so much of life itself. Not just a gift for Valentine’s Day, this is an absolute must-have for cinephiles and cine-lovers alike. Darling, do yourself a favour and let Douglas enlighten you.

Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama is released through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

In a time where everything appears to have a price tag, writer/director Tom Dicillo’s statement rings true; “The Doors, they never sold out. It was deeply inspirational to be reminded that not everything is for sale.” More than just a documentary about the formation of an iconic band, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (2009), is about that historical, social and political synthesis that occurs when music engages with and permeates its temporal context.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the music itself stands strong “against time” (so to speak), it is also true that The Doors are a band, and that their music is an output, that captures something significant of its own time. Perhaps the very reason it resonates still today is that what it captured was a transient and hopeful moment never fully realised; its relevancy today, therefore, permeating and immovable.

Refreshingly for a documentary about so famous a group as The Doors, Dicillo doesn’t go down the tired and frankly rather fruitless line of “talking heads” and instead uses fine filmmaking craft to find the most piercing way to start a story: “The sixties began with a shot.” Tracing from here the events and awakenings of the time, Dicillo moves from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the Civil Rights Movement and up to the Vietnam War. Commenting upon whilst chartering these significant events, When You’re Strange is as much about historically significant values and moments of cultural change as it is the band. Dicillo doesn’t just pose history as a backdrop for their advent to fame but rather as the symbiotic, organic relationship that evolved between the two; “The establishment exists but a genuine counter-culture is growing.”

Making full use of remarkable stock footage of the band playing gigs as well of their fans and contemporaries, When You’re Strange is told simultaneously through voice-over narration and musical progression. A surprisingly rare feat for a music documentary, When You’re Strange actually considers the quality and aspects of their music and why that was not only unique but how it engaged and informed their displays of revelry and the carnivalesque in relation to the emerging counter-culture of the time. There is of course a tendency towards focus on Jim Morrison above other members of the band, but at no time does the film ignore the other three members; John Densmore, Robby Krieger,  Ray Manzarek; in preference of the notorious front man, always ensuring the focus is in relation to his effect on the group as a whole.

Contemplating violence as an American tradition and with the advent of Richard Nixon to the presidency, the film culminates in an extraordinarily moving montage set to “Riders on the Storm”. Contrasting war footage and an all-American child on the home front swinging like a monkey set perfectly to the lyric “let your children play”, When You’re Strange highlights how mimicry can lead to devastation. Revealing how political unrest ebbs and flows between counter-culture and conservatism just as artistic expression moves between its own motivating forces, When You’re Strange is never over dramatised or condescending to its audience and allows the incredible imagery and music of its subject to do so much of “the talking”. That said, the film is still scripted and operates as an “informative” documentary in the first instance, the dulcet tones of Johnny Depp narrating and guiding the experience. A fantastic documentary that reveals compelling subject matter, this is certainly one to make time for.

When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors is screening exclusively as part of an ACMI’s long-play season from December 27 2010 to January 3 2011 and is distributed through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Fair Game

November 24, 2010

Whether or not the film takes too much artistic license with the exact events as they in real life took place, and in the absence of a definitive, unbiased interpretation of events, I have to say that I personally was fairly impressed by the admittedly left-leaning politics of Doug Liman’s latest thriller Fair Game (2010). But opinions regarding the true story of Valerie Plame Wilson aside, the greatest success of the film is the way in which it so seamlessly uses formal techniques to elucidate narrative content.

One of the greatest ways to ensure an audience buys the authenticity of a film is to use documentary or stock TV footage. This technique is especially successful when the footage is woven into the thematic fabric of the film and harmoniously matched with visual graphics (exemplarily explicated at the very end of the film where Liman cuts in graphic match from Naomi Watts’ performance to “real life” footage of Valerie Plame Wilson’s testimony in court.) In the opening titles for the film we are presented with news footage of George Bush and an aural mash-up of non-diegetic music from the Gorillaz layered on top of a spate of diegetic key words that alliterate and are accumulatively onomatopoeic; “scare”, “threat”, “substance”, “security”,  “terrorist attacks”, “terrorist networks”. Set less than one month after September 11 and engaging in the media frenzy that followed these events, such formal techniques allow audience awareness from the outset; this film is interested in exposing the Bush administration as hysterical and fraudulent. Furthermore, the film is clearly and explicitly aligned with an anti-Iraq occupation political point of view.

In addition to the use of such footage, the drama itself is filmed in two distinctly different styles that play off one another to great effect. When we see Valerie (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) at home or in a familial/social environment the camera work is static implying peaceful, steady and stable foundations. Conversely, when we see Valerie or Joe in governmental or field agent settings the camera work is often shaky and intrusive which is consciously interrogative implying a great deal of uncertainty and erraticism. This juxtaposition is used to both frame the Wilsons as “good” people of integrity and simultaneously cast doubt over the systems of power that employ them.

Selective use of famous quotations further ads to the communicable incredulity of certain US office holders and their role in the events that led to the West’s invasion of Iraq. From Saddam’s “I would rather kill my friends in error than let my enemies live” to the Bush administration’s “The responsibility of a country is not in the hands of a few” Liman is questioning the way in which the media present high-profile conflict to the public. In lieu of this it is clear that in presenting another perspective on Valerie Plame Wilson’s case, Liman is interested in visual media’s ability to communicate and manipulate viewers. Rousing and provocative in the first instance, Fair Game is a fascinatingly self-reflexive accusal of popular discourse in its ability to skew fact and create polemic.

Fair Game is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 25 through Hoyts Distribution.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

The Messenger

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.

The Messenger is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 11 through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

City of Life and Death

July 30, 2010

Made “in memory” of the some 300,000 victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking), City of Life and Death (2009) is important and difficult viewing.

Behind the opening credits are pieces of history; postcards written in English from inside Nanking by John Rabe (a member of the Nazi party who tried to protect many Chinese refugees during Japanese occupation through the establishment of the “Nanking Safety Zone”.) The handwritten words on the postcards reflect desperation but not hopelessness. Sadly, the images and events that follow unravel so as to leave no room for hope; merciless and relentless in their revealing of many truly horrific crimes against humanity. Like a tide pulling out from the shore, waves of Chinese civilians are massacred; shot, beheaded as a form of trophy-ism, buried alive. In addition to the massacres, thousands of women were repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers. Even hope itself is symbolically taken from the Chinese citizens of Nanjing when Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) – the most likely soldier to have a moral and ethical conscience – takes away Mrs Tang’s rosary beads.

Visually the film is incredibly convincing, the attention to detail and the texture of the images deeply affecting. It is occasionally let down by intermittent overly melodramatic exchanges which unfortunately can’t help but recall that overwrought final scene in Schindler’s List (1993).Considering at its heart the notion that, “Life is more difficult than Death” and contemplating the finiteness of the “death drive”: “Everyone dies in the End”, City of Life and Death shows how a war zone necessarily becomes a liminal space – suspended between life and death – leaving only victims in its wake. Brilliant filmmaking and essential viewing.

City of Life and Death screened as part of this year’s MIFF.